"IT'S ONE of the worst, if not the worst situation -
human rights abuse situation - in the world today,"
said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., who held hearings on the camps last year.
"There are very few places that could compete with the level of depravity,
the harshness of this regime in North Korea toward its own people."
Satellite photos provided by Digital Globe, which first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, confirm the existence of the camps, and interviews with those who have been there and with U.S. officials who study the North suggest Brownback's assessment may be conservative. Among NBC News' findings:
Efforts by MSNBC.com to reach North Korean officials were unsuccessful. Messages left at the office of North Korea's permanent representative to the United Nations went unanswered.
Eung Soo Han, a press officer at South Korea's U.N. consulate, said: "It is a very unfortunate situation, and our hearts go out to those who suffer. We hope North Korea will open up its country, and become more actively involved with the international community in order for the North Korean people to be lifted out of their difficult situation."
LABOR, DEATH, ABUSE
NBC's investigation revealed that North Korea's State Security Agency maintains a dozen political prisons and about 30 forced labor and labor education camps, mainly in remote areas. The worst are in the country's far Northeast. Some of them are gargantuan: At least two of the camps, Haengyong and Huaong, are larger in area than the District of Columbia, with Huaong being three times the size of the U.S. capital district.
Satellite photos provided by DigitalGlobe show several of the camps, including the notorious Haengyong, for the first time outside official circles. Plainly visible are acres upon acres of barracks, laid out in regimented military style. Surrounding each of them is 10-foot-high barbed-wire fencing along with land mines and man traps. There is even a battery of anti-aircraft guns to prevent a liberation by airborne troops.
Ahn Myong Chol, a guard at the camp (which is sometimes known as Hoeryong) from 1987 through 1994, examined the satellite photos of Camp 22 for NBC News. They were taken in April, eight years after he left. But he says little has changed. He was able to pick out the family quarters for prisoners, the work areas, the propaganda buildings.
Looking at the imagery, Ahn noted what happened in each building:
"This is the detention center," he said. "If someone goes inside this building, in three months he will be dead or disabled for life. In this corner they decided about the executions, who to execute and whether to make it public. This is the Kim Il Sung institute, a movie house for officers. Here is watchdog training. And guard training ground."
Pointing to another spot, he said: "This is the garbage pond where the two kids were killed when guard kicked them in pond."
Another satellite photo shows a coal mine at the Chungbong camp where prisoners are worked to exhaustion in a giant pit.
"All of North Korea is a gulag," said one senior U.S. official, noting that as many as 2 million people have died of starvation while Kim has amassed the world's largest collection of Daffy Duck cartoons. "It's just that these people [in the camps] are treated the worst. No one knows for sure how many people are in the camps, but 200,000 is consistent with our best guess. We don't have a breakdown, but there are large numbers of both women and children."
BEYOND THE PALE
It is the widespread jailing of political prisoners' families that makes North Korea unique, according to human rights advocates. Under a directive issued by Kim's father, North Korea's founder, Kim Il Sung, three generations of a dissident's family can be jailed simply on the basis of a denunciation. NBC News interviewed two former prisoners and a former guard about conditions in the camps. The three spent their time at different camps. Their litany of camp brutalities is unmatched anywhere in the world, say human rights activists.
"Listening to their stories, it's horrific," said David Hawk, a veteran human rights campaigner and a consultant for the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. Hawk has interviewed many former prisoners in Seoul.
"It's hard to do more than one or two a day because they're just so painful to hear: horrific mistreatment - all sorts of suffering, beatings to death, executions."